A unique school tradition will come to an end in one Aroostook County town next year. Wednesday night, the school board for SAD 1, in Presque Isle, voted to eliminate “harvest break” – a three week period in the fall when students leave the classroom and help to harvest potatoes. In recent years other towns have also eliminated the break. However, school officials expect that the unusual practice will continue in a few places.
The SAD 1 school board has spent much of the past two months debating the value of "harvest break." They heard from farmers, who said it provided valuable, short term labor and equipped kids with job skills. But they also heard from parents, like Frank Bemis, who said the three-week layoff interrupts student learning and can make childcare a headache.
“We find it to be a struggle to manage kids on these off-kilter schedules,” Bemis told the school board in early January. “Things are a little different, trying to do that.”
A recent survey from the district found that only about 15 percent of Presque Isle High School students contributed to harvest work in 2017. Superintendent Brian Carpenter says that low number played a role in the decision to eliminate harvest break.
Carpenter also says the move should save the district money on transportation and by consolidating teachers' schedules.
“Originally, there was $55,000 that we looked at,” Carpenter says. “Just on the surface savings.”
The board's decision allows students to participate in harvest break if they choose. They'll just need to make up the work they miss.
“So although we didn't vote harvest down, we effectively made it so that it's not going to be a usable tool,” says Brandon Roope, a farmer and school board member. Roope says the new policy could leave farmers searching for help in a market where it's already hard to find agricultural workers.
“They're resourceful, so I'm sure they'll come up with something,” Roope says. “But as for a labor force, it's not out there.”
The district's decision comes only a few years after school districts in Houlton and Hodgdon also eliminated harvest break. The tradition continues in places like Caribou, Mars Hill and Easton, where Roger Shaw is the school superintendent.
“To eliminate harvest break, and expect a student to work for a farmer – that's simply unrealistic," Shaw says. "That's not going to happen.”
Shaw says that in Easton a large number of families are still dependent on agriculture. He estimates that 40 percent of high schoolers work the harvest each year. That's more than double the number in Presque Isle. And Shaw believes doing the work helps students learn skills like perseverance that help lead to academic success. Two years ago the district had a 96 percent graduation rate.
“We're a very strong academic school,” Shaw says. “Does the potato harvest break play a part in that? I couldn't say it does or doesn't. But it's part of the mix.”
In Presque Isle, meanwhile, some questions still need to be answered. The biggest, says superintendent Brian Carpenter, is figuring out scheduling. Surrounding districts send many of their student to Presque Isle's vocational center. Carpenter says if some of those schools are off for harvest break, while Presque Isle is in session, that could mean some students miss weeks of class time.
The new policy won't go into effect until 2019, however, and Carpenter says that should be plenty of time to figure those issues out.
Education reporting on Maine Public Radio is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.